It is time to break the western monopoly on human rights interpretation


Tom Zwart

I consider it a great honour and a huge pleasure to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Declaration on the Right to Development among such distinguished colleagues and friends. I would like to thank the SCIO, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with which I cooperate productively through the Embassy in The Hague, for this very kind and honourable invitation.
Today I do not only speak on behalf of the Netherlands School of Human Rights Research, but also on behalf of the Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre. The Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre is a network of universities and scholars from China, Africa and the Caribbean. Members from South East Asia and Latin America will also join.
The Centre was established in Beijing in 2014 and its aim is to increase the dialogue on human rights between scholars from across the world. In so doing it draws attention in particular to human rights concepts and ideas developed in Southern countries, such as China and Africa. The work is inspired by the call made by General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2012 to make the outside world aware of the China Dream, by telling China’s stories and sharing China’s experiences.
I would like to congratulate the Communist Party and the State Council on their very successful efforts to eradicate poverty in China. There can be no doubt that is the biggest human rights accomplishment in the history of humankind.
I was very disappointed, therefore, to read the end-of-mission report issued by the Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, after his visit to China. Although he does acknowledge China’s major accomplishments in the area of poverty eradication, he also transgresses his mandate to make baseless and irrelevant points.
Many westerners fail to see that the right to development is not about money but about human dignity. Having proper sanitation and hygiene, access to affordable health care and enough food on the table are the basic conditions for a dignified life. This link between human dignity and the right to development was made very persuasively already in the White Paper on human rights, issued by the State Council in 1991.
The Declaration can be considered the first successful joint action undertaken by Southern states in the area of human rights. The Declaration was based on Southern scholarship, such as the pioneering research conducted by the Senegalese jurist Keba M’baye. And its adoption was the result of joint stage management performed by diplomats from different continents. Therefore the Declaration serves as a source of inspiration for the work of the Cross-cultural Human Rights Centre. That is currently drafting a ‘Comprehensive Southern Vision on human rights’. The vision document will lay out a common Southern outlook on human rights issues as an elaboration of the Universal Declaration. We believe that the time has come to break the western monopoly on human rights interpretation by offering a comprehensive alternative view.
(The author is a law professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. This is the Speaking Notes for the Opening Ceremony of the Seminar on the Declaration on the Right to Development, Beijing, 4th December 2016)
(Source: People’s Daily)